Where can I find advice for returning to school?
January 30, 2014 1:01 PM   Subscribe

Dropped out of school several years ago, drifted for a bit, but now I want to return and get AT LEAST a BS in mathematics. What sources are there for someone returning to school? Should I bite the bullet and pay for college counseling, or are there good free resources I'm missing?

My first attempt at a university education (a mid-tier UC) ended 6 years ago with me dropping out. I had a 2.9 GPA, a transcript littered with Ws, and I'm honestly not sure if I'd even attained junior standing, owing to the number of classes I'd dropped. I decided that higher education just wasn't for me and there was zero point in ever trying again.

Fast-forward to today. I have a decent income doing web marketing in Los Angeles, but it's not at all what I love. I've done a lot of thinking over the past year or so and I came to the realization that I want to go back to school. I want to at the very least attain a BS in mathematics - and would absolutely relish the opportunity to earn a masters or even a PhD. My wonderful GF is incredibly supportive of my plan and I'm extremely eager to realize my full potential.

So far, I've been taking steps to get back into the learning process. I wanted to make sure I had a strong foundation with math (I took calculus back in college - my performance was mediocre, probably a C+ average over the entire three-course sequence) so I started taking pre-calc at my local community college, plus another GE. I earned straight As my first semester, something I've literally never done in my life, and I'm taking a bunch more classes this semester. I'm planning on beginning calculus again this summer and the rest of my math/sci classes in 2014-15.

I feel so enthusiastic about the process, but I have to confess I'm a little nervous about my direction. Aside from aiming to fulfill the IGETC curriculum for transfer, I don't have a lot of guidance on the task I'm undertaking. I have a lot of questions about the transfer process:

-Which colleges I should apply to/have a reasonable chance of getting into
-What deficiencies I should be addressing in my application right now
-Timeline for when I can begin applying to schools
-How realistic my plan is (kick ass and get a BS in mathematics, then go to a top 20 school for a PhD in pure or applied math) (I'm especially concerned about this as I am so interested in going to grad school and I don't want to hobble myself with a not-so-great undergraduate institution.)

So what I'm looking for is 75% information, 25% "You can do it!" exhortation.

Are there any especially useful sources for this kind of advice? I'm looking for anything that can help. I've considered going to a college counseling service; they seem kind of rip-off-ish but I figure spending a couple hundred bucks now at the start of this process could be super useful. I've also been looking for books on returning to school, and I've been hovering around my CC's transfer center. I've also been to my school's counseling office, though since I don't have enough credits through them to get an official transcript evaluation until after this semester I have yet to receive really firm advice from them. I've even read a bunch of threads on AskMefi, which have done a decent job making me feel more confident about this whole endeavor.

Does anyone have any advice on where I could get what I'm looking for? I want to make this second trip through higher education really count for something. Thanks in advance for all of your responses.
posted by miltthetank to Education (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Your CC's transfer center is a good place to start. Make an appointment to actually sit down and talk to someone, if you haven't already (not sure if "hovering around" just means you've been reading the materials they have on hand, or if you've gotten in to see someone.)

Going longer term, what are your interests in pure and applied math? What would you want to do research in? You don't have to make a concrete decision now (plenty of academics don't find The Thing They Love The Most Of All right away), but it's good to have at least a loose idea in mind, because that should be what's really influencing your choices here, more than "school ranking". (Not to say that overall school reputation doesn't matter at all, but it matters less than you might think.) If you get in to school #1 and school #25, but #25 features one of the brightest minds currently working on manifolds and you love manifolds, then going to #25 is going to do way more for your happiness and your career, especially if you intend to try to work in academia (when academics are trying to size you up, they don't ask you where you've graduated from. They ask you who you've worked with.)

You should choose to transfer to a school that supports undergraduate research, with professors who you'd be interested in working with (and who'd be interested in working with you, natch.) Keep in mind, too, that while some people do directly transfer from CC to their final degree landing, it's not at all uncommon for that to be a 3-step process, especially (IME) in a place with as many colleges and universities as the LA area--even if you don't land a spot in UCLA or Harvey Mudd during your first round, it may be well worth your while to do a year or two at a CSU and try again (not that you're doomed if you finish out at a CSU. I know someone who did their whole degree there, and is now doing a mathematics Ph.D at a "higher-tier" UC.)
posted by kagredon at 1:32 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can do it! Maybe! It's going to get way, way harder than precalc! But it's going to be worth it!

Talk to your professors, especially the ones who have advanced degrees in math (even if they're not from the kinds of schools you think you want to go to, even if they only have a masters). If all your professors have teaching degrees rather than math degrees, talk to them anyway, and find out if they can hook you up with someone who can give you more information.

In addition to, as kagredon says, doing a year or two at a CSU (or whatever) and then transferring to UCLA (or whatever), you should also consider the possibility of transferring to a mid-tier school, kicking ass for the last couple of years of your BS, and then looking at Masters programs in addition to PhD programs. If you can't get directly into the PhD programs you want, a great MS thesis could help get you there.

I don't know much about private college advising; if you find someone you think you might like I would advise you to ask them, specifically, what services they provide and who they usually work with. You have different needs and goals than a 17-year-old high school junior; make sure you're working with someone who knows how to help you.
posted by mskyle at 1:45 PM on January 30, 2014

I know that some (perhaps all?) UCs have a quota for students transferring from CA community colleges, so you're on the right track. My cousin came from another country, studied at a community college for 2 years, then got into a good UC that I couldn't even get into, coming from a good high school with decent grades. I'm not so sure about the CSU to UC route...
posted by madonna of the unloved at 2:25 PM on January 30, 2014

I have a BS in math. Personally, I feel that mathematicians going to top 10 schools for a PhD are the kind of mathematicians who are born, not made. Top 20 is another story. You could definitely grind it out and get into a place like Wisconsin or UMD. The question you need to ask yourself is what are your plans after the degree(s)? Most math people I know end up doing something more like web marketing in the end. All that said, since you're in CA you should definitely take the CC to UC path.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 3:16 PM on January 30, 2014

I am a mathematician by profession. I just looked up the US News rankings of math grad programs, because I had no idea what they were. Honestly, you'd be fine at any institution in the top 50 or 60, in the sense that I know impressive, employed mathematicians with Ph.D.s from pretty much all of those places. (And I don't think the US News ranking has much of anything to do with actual prestige among mathematicians, once you get out of the top 10 or so.) There is a trend for institutions to require more teaching of their graduate students as you move further down in the US News rankings. That's not *necessarily* a bad thing, if you'd be interested in a more teaching-oriented job in the long term.

To get into graduate school, you need good grades, good letters of recommendation, and these days probably at least a little bit of undergrad research experience. At a UC, you would have access to more challenging classes, and more ambitious peers. But you might find it easier to find professors interested in doing research with you at one of the Cal States (in particular, I'd recommend taking a close look at the math programs at the Cal Polys and Cal State Channel Islands). In fact, you'll generally have easier access to professors as an undergrad in the Cal State system, which could make for better personal connections and therefore better letters.
posted by yarntheory at 5:40 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

As I understand it, it's much, much easier to transfer from a CC to a UC than from anywhere else (be it a CSU, another UC, or somewhere else entirely). That's not to say it can't be done (I lived with someone who had transferred from another UC), but I would not rely on that happening.

I'm nearing the end of a math PhD (you can figure out where in one guess from my location). My impression is that there are many very good departments that will simply not care about your first go-round with college. Some will be biased against you because you'll not be 21 or 22 (and therefore you don't have enough 'passion' for math or some crap) and these are probably the same places that will care about your earlier grades. I also know people with far ropier transcripts than yours who got into grad school.

I was an undergrad at Berkeley, but I was not a transfer student. The transfer students I knew had 4.0 or very, very close to it community college GPAs. You'll want to figure out how your old transcripts will be viewed in transfer admissions--will they be ignored or will they be seen as dragging down your GPA? Once you know that, you'll presumably have some idea of how competitive you'll be for various UCs and CSUs.

To get into graduate school, you need good grades, good letters of recommendation, and these days probably at least a little bit of undergrad research experience. At a UC, you would have access to more challenging classes, and more ambitious peers.

All of this, and don't discount access to graduate classes as an undergrad. As far as I can tell, having taken a couple made me drastically more competitive for PhD programs and drastically more prepared. You have to be a bit organised as a transfer student to fit them in, but then you'll have already done your breadth requirements. (I think transfer students had four semesters before the unit cap kicked in, rather than eight, and I took upper division courses my second year, so I had one more year than you will to take classes beyond what's offered by the community colleges.)

There are these things called Research Experiences for Undergraduates which run in the summer (you go to a random college or university and do research for 8-10 weeks or so), which is a really common way to get research experience. This, of course, entails being able to up and go somewhere totally random for two months. (I spent summers in Indiana and Texas. You cannot count on finding or getting into an REU in California. There is/was one at CSU San Bernadino, but that was the only California REU I ever applied to. I don't know if that's because there weren't many others or they weren't of interest to me (e.g. RIPS at UCLA).)

I never did (math) research outside of REUs and obviously got into grad school just fine. (I did do URAP at Berkeley, but in archaeology--there aren't all that many math projects.) Access to professors wasn't the issue (other people did do research in math without going through URAP), so much as me not being very assertive or ambitious. I'm conditioned to bristle at the suggestion that UCs won't afford you access to professors and I don't think it's true. However, you do have to make things happen for yourself a bit more than you would at a smaller university--it's unlikely someone is going to recruit you to do research with them, which I gather might happen elsewhere, but that doesn't mean you'd get stonewalled if you ask.

My officemate transferred from a community college to a UC and there's at least one person in my department who went to a CSU as well as one who did a master's at a CSU. I will pass questions to them if you want.
posted by hoyland at 8:24 PM on January 30, 2014

One thing that surprised me watching my friend apply to phd programs in pure mathematics was learning that many (top?) schools had a foreign language requirement for their phd candidates. So maybe get started learning Russian, French, or German if you haven't already. Also computer programming is a good skill to have.

I agree with the advice that meeting with someone at your CC's counseling center, with the following addition: if you do not find this particular counselor helpful, make another appointment with someone else until you someone who can help you.

A few thoughts to get you started. Are you limited to schools within driving distance? Within CA? Public or private? In my humble opinion it would be silly to pay out of state tuition when you have such great public options in CA. Private colleges and universities are not always set up to transfer credits smoothly. It will depend on the school of course, but many privates have a limit on the number of credits one can transfer in, and/or do not accept transfer applicants with more than a certain number of credits. Finally, how are you planning on paying for school?
posted by oceano at 9:20 PM on January 30, 2014

Thanks for the advice, everybody! I went to my CC's transfer office today but there was some special event going on, so I'm gonna head there again after my morning class tomorrow.

It's good to know that the UCs and CSUs are still an option for me. I definitely want to stay in CA for undergrad. I wouldn't rule out going to private school, though the ones I know of (Harvey Mudd, USC, Occidental) seem pretty expensive/exclusive, so they're not my top choice currently. My plan thus far is to get into the best university/college I can (or with the best math department, at least), perform incredibly well scholastically, try to narrow down what I'd want to research, and then go to a great school in that field for graduate work. I didn't know about REUs but the prospect of completing actual research during undergrad is really enticing, thanks for the tip hoyland!

Right now after averaging out all the inputs (location, quality of school, cost) my top picks are UCI, UCSD, and (if I could ever get in) UCLA. I toured CSULA a few months ago when I began taking classes, it didn't look half-bad! I was concerned that the name wouldn't get me very far, but if that's not so much of an issue...

To answer oceano's last question, I'm currently working full-time and banking as much money as possible, which I'm hoping will defray the costs when I transfer. Other than that, I will be relying on loans and/or scholarships; thankfully the amount of loans I'm paying off from my last go-round with college is relatively small.
posted by miltthetank at 9:48 PM on January 30, 2014

oceano: "One thing that surprised me watching my friend apply to phd programs in pure mathematics was learning that many (top?) schools had a foreign language requirement for their phd candidates. So maybe get started learning Russian, French, or German if you haven't already."

It's often a token requirement. It'll vary with department, but in my department it's totally normal to pass a language exam with next to no knowledge of the language.* That might be towards the extreme end, but in general, you basically need to be able to limp through semi-efficiently with the help of a dictionary. (I'm sure there are some departments out there that require actual knowledge of the language, as well.) Depending on what type of math one does, at least one of French, Russian and German can be useful, but it's hard to foresee which of those it'll be. All that said, I did take a bunch of German as an undergrad and absolutely don't regret it, even if I've read perhaps one paper in German.

*To be fair, Grothendieck is readable with next to no knowledge of French, so in that sense, our language exams are utterly reasonable. I have a passing knowledge of French. I might be able to read the newspaper. I can, however, read math in French, as it's exceptionally straightforward. I actually know German and math in German is harder for me than math in French.
posted by hoyland at 11:38 PM on January 30, 2014

The foreign language requirement just means they give you a math paper written in French (or German, Russian, or whatever) and you have to translate it to English with a foreign language dictionary, and you have unlimited number of tries.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 11:53 PM on January 30, 2014

I wouldn't rule out going to private school, though the ones I know of (Harvey Mudd, USC, Occidental) seem pretty expensive/exclusive, so they're not my top choice currently.

Private schools sometimes have much deeper pockets when it comes to financial aid than state schools, so do not cross them off your list for this reason alone before you do more investigating as to your eligibility for aid. It was a million years ago, and I was a traditional-aged non-transfer student, but it cost me less to go to a private college than it would have to go to my state flagship university because of the extremely generous financial aid package.
posted by rtha at 6:43 AM on January 31, 2014

Speaking of private colleges, I know several in the Northeast that have special programs for returning/nontraditional students. I don't know California schools well but you might want to at least look into the New Resources program at Pitzer College (which would allow you take classes at other Claremont Colleges, including Harvey Mudd).
posted by mskyle at 10:16 AM on January 31, 2014

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